On intellectual humility

The other day, I was leafing through an overlooked copy of The New Yorker and came across this profile of behavioral neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. He seems a remarkably brilliant man, whose intellectual curiosity and flexibility have given him the ability to diagnose and treat patients with various neurological disorders (eg. phantom limb pain) with remarkable insight. I came away from the article with the disconcerting realization that this man is orders of magnitude more intelligent than I am, which is never a sensation I particularly enjoy.

It was with further dejection that I read a recent musing about philosophy by Julian Sanchez (by way of Andrew Sullivan). He was responding to this article on the mind-body question by Jane O'Grady. He writes:
I wanted to write some sort of first order reply to Jane O’Grady’s article “Can a Machine Change Your Mind?“—but as I began thinking it over, it became clear that it would end up killing half my day. First of all, I’d have to go back to my library and brush up on my philosophy of mind, a topic I’ve given only very sporadic attention since my undergrad days. Second, it’s something of a one-way hash: For every confused or muddled claim, it would take about a dozen paragraphs of explication to make clear to someone not intimately familiar with philosophy of mind what’s wrong with it. (Whereas, of course, someone who is familiar requires no explication.)


If one is writing for a lay audience, in fact, I feel pretty confident that it’s not even possible to clearly lay out the contested questions, or what precisely the various positions on them are, in that allotment of space. At best, an untrained reader of O’Grady’s piece would come away simply befuddled and unsure what she was getting on about. Some, to judge by the comments, appear to believe they have learned something from it, which suggests that O’Grady has given them the unhealthy illusion of knowing something.
Right, thought I. I'm a smart chap. I'm sure I can get something out of O'Grady's piece, and form an opinion about what she has to say. Right?

Wrong. I have no idea, at all, what she is trying to say. I... am not happy about this.

Sanchez continues:
No doubt scientists feel the same way about plenty of pop-science writing, but I think there’s an important distinction: Someone reading about an important finding in biology or physics understands full well that what they’re getting is the upshot of a complicated process of math-laden theorizing and experiment someone else has done. Summarizing a philosophical argument, by contrast, basically looks like doing philosophy. Also, because so much of philosophy is about conceptual clarification, it’s often hard to reduce to a gist. Try to figure out what philosophers have to say about the claim that “the mind is the brain,” for instance, and you’ll quickly realize that a rather large chunk of what they have to say goes to the question of what it even means to assert that “the mind is the brain.”
Orac over at Respectful Insolence likes to rail against people who think they know something about science or medicine because they have studied at "Google Unversity," a sentiment I share in spades when it comes to medical misinformation. But it appears that Sanchez is saying that, insofar as philosophy is concerned, even trying to describe the question being asked, much less the opinions about the answer, is beyond the capacity of a layperson like Yours Truly to understand.

How utterly, utterly depressing. What's more, there's this to consider:
This brings us around to some of my longstanding ambivalence about blogging and journalism more generally. On the one hand, while it’s probably not enormously important whether most people have a handle on the mind-body problem, a democracy can’t make ethics and political philosophy the exclusive province of cloistered academics. On the other hand, I look at the online public sphere and too often tend to find myself thinking: “Discourse at this level can’t possibly accomplish anything beyond giving people some simulation of justification for what they wanted to believe in the first place.” This is, needless to say, not a problem limited to philosophy. And I think it may contribute to the fragmentation and political polarization we see online, which are generally explained in sociological terms as an “echo chamber” effect or “groupthink.”
Anyone who's spent even an hour reading blogs or online opinion pieces knows that this is true. As far as public discourse is concerned, I will agree that most people lack the expertise to really know what they're talking about with regard to many issues. Beyond philosophy, the two areas where I often feel I know very little, and certainly not enough to have an informed opinion, are economics and law. (This rather raises the question of why we picked "Bleakonomy" for a blog name. Fair question. "Bleakiatrics" just doesn't scan, though.) Legal and economic theory are both often too abstruse for many of us to understand the questions at hand, much less the answers.

I find his answer a bit weird, however.
What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence. Not just a clash between two confident but opposed views—we get plenty of that all the time, and it’s part of the problem—but an examination (assuming good faith) of what’s keeping these smart jousters from reaching consensus. Not “the case for policy A” vs “the case for policy B” but “the epistemic problems that make it hard to choose between A and B,” as though (I know, it’s crazy) the search for truth were more than a punch-up between mutually exclusive, preestablished conclusions. The message is not (to coin a phrase) “we report, you decide” but “we report on why you’re not actually competent to decide, unless you’re prepared to devote a hell of a lot more time, energy, and thought to it.”
Really? That's the best that can be hoped for? The best I can hope to achieve is a sense of why I'm not qualified to have an opinion?

I hope Sanchez is being pessimistic in his assessment. I would like to believe that writers of skill can communicate to intelligent readers (*cough*) some sense of what the question is, and what the prevailing opinions on both sides are. Perhaps this is pie in the sky? Anyone with expertise in these areas like to weigh in?


  1. I, too, felt that I had no idea what Ms. O'Grady is trying to say in the article other than she doesn't like reductionism. The article is not at all clear in distinguishing the meaning of brain states from the underlying physical realization of brain states. Mr. Sanchez uses Yeats' The Second Coming (the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity) to good effect.

  2. I think your article and the comment posted, reveal the gap between philosophers, who claim to do important conceptual work, and people outside the methods and understanding of that conceptual work - it has a certain language of discourse, which makes it opaque to those who are simply not familiar with such discourse, but are obviously intrigued and genuinely interested in the subject matter, and its further implications.

    It is quite a paradox that philosophers argue the generic importance of the philosophical approach, yet seem to have exclusivity to the method of that approach. If philosophy continues to be a discourse limited to an exclusive circle, rather than multi-discipline collaboration, then it seems ironic for philosophers to feel misunderstood, no matter how well reasoned their arguments. In short they may well have a well reasoned argument, but what does that matter if no one can clearly and simply see it is well reasoned.

    It seems plausible that a philosopher with a sufficient understanding could dissect the main points of such an article, and explain the main thrust without losing much of the impact. Again highlight the reasons of the argument not the differing partisan views.

    Would be interested to hear what active philosophers have to say, I'm not in anyway suggesting that philosophers have got it wrong.